Rambling Notes from Japan
Here are some blog posts that we hope will make you feel a part of things, and help you understand how to pray better for us and Japan. Please see our external blog in Blogger, if this page does not display correctly.
A Church Without Doors
"Up until the 311 tragedy, most Japanese didn't even know a Christian. They didn't feel anything toward the church or Christianity period!" says a Miyako Community Church member when I asked her about the impact of the ongoing relief work. "The tsunami changed things. Now, many people around here can say they know a Christian!"
Our team of six from our church plant, Denen Grace Chapel, again worked in the tsunami-struck area for a weekend last month, and can testify to Mrs S's words. Now, through the work of literally hundreds of Christian volunteer relief workers, many understand what Christianity is about: a neighbor there in their time of need with God's words and hands of hope.
Even the local police!My heart skipped a beat when the Japanese police officer approached our vehicle. I was in the driver's seat; our church team rode behind. We had just stopped at a scenic overlook when the patrol car pulled in next to us. "Are you a church?" the officer asked. "Yes," I managed, confused as to why he would ask and not sure whether this admission would lend credibility or suspicion to my case. "Thanks for your work!" he replied. Then added cheerfully, "Say 'hi' to Pastor Iwatsuka." He recognized our borrowed church vehicle and just wanted to say thanks!
This was another reminder of the impact this church has had in the community since 311. Even the police can say they know a Christian, and have a good opinion of the church's work! Pastor I is now an integral part of community networks, involved in ways the church used to be shut out from.
I preached at the church on Sunday AM, giving Pastor Iwatsuka a needed break. Our team brought some special music. Attendance numbered maybe a dozen or so, typical size for a Japanese church. But that's not their real size...
God has thrown away the doors of the church to provide it with perhaps the greatest opportunity for community engagement in Japan in the last 100 years. And this little church has seized it. Of the 60+ temporary housing areas around Miyako, the church has a ongoing presence in 26 of them!
Into the Community
Meanwhile, we set to action. First, we go door to door, distributing the small gifts and Scripture bookmarks we prepared, and inviting the residents to join our "mobile cafe" in the community room. There, our own Mrs. U has prepared a Bible calligraphy lesson. Residents trace simple Scripture verses like "The joy of the Lord is my strength." We serve hot coffee. I share a short message from the Bible. We sing and pray together. Then we serve them lunch: taco rice and salad. The men are reluctant to come out, so we hand deliver this meal to some of those shut-ins.
We say our goodbyes. Everyone steals a hug from the odd American (myself). Then we go to another temporary housing area and do it all again.
New WavesThis is our fifth trip to post-tsunami Japan as a church, and my ninth visit. The long trek up and back (12 hours by car) is exhausting, but the work is exhilarating. And it REALLY matters to the survivors. Some were near tears, reluctant to let us leave, even following us to our vehicle. Pastor I showed us the activity calendar on the community room's wall. The church-sponsored mobile cafes were the only thing they had! Other NPO activity and volunteers have dried up or moved on. But the church remains!
Though we're still careful to honor the community's rules (no overly pushy proselytizing), none really mind us opening the Bible, praying with them, and using creative means (like calligraphy) to bring God's gospel words of hope. And I've never heard a more tear-jerking strain of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" than the one the residents sing together with us. For the first time, parts of northern Japan are learning that they have a friend in the church, and a friend in Jesus. They are seeing a church without doors lovingly engaging their community and lives.
Pastor I takes us to the harbor around sunset. He shows us a tsunami warning tower with markings on the wall that indicate the height of the previous waves [see photo]. Wow! Yet that great wave of destruction on 311 was followed by greater waves of Christian testimony, and, I believe, will in time produce a great wave of spiritual awakening in northern Japan.
Would you pray for this ongoing relief work among the people of northern Japan? Pray that more would want to know what motivates these Christians to keep coming and keep loving them.
I have uploaded more photos for you to view. More info on Taro (the super seawall town) relief work on our blog here, here, and here.
Another Visit in Taro
It's a 12 hour drive to Taro from Kawasaki, farther than an international flight from Tokyo to Chicago (and not any easier on the legs and back). The trip had a few unexpected "slips" and "turns" as we ran into a late-winter snowstorm near the coast. Japan generally does not do a lot of plowing, and no salting. So, the mountain roads were quite an adventure to navigate with "normal" tires. Fortunately, I had tire chains along. Unfortunately I had never had occasion to practice putting them on. The chains claimed to be "NO-PROBLEM-30-seconds-EZ-on-and-off chains." I can tell you, in the cold, dark and snow, it was nowhere near EZ. I finally gave up and crawled slowly, slipping and sliding, to the gas station for help. It took them 30 minutes.
We cooperated again with a local church to do some simple survivor care with these residents. We hosted "mobile cafes" to encourage gathering and sharing with one another. When we arrived in the villages, half the team went to set up the cafe, the other half knocked door-to-door and spread the word that the cafe would open soon. I could tell by the surprised look on some of the residents faces that they had not encountered a big-nose American recently, much less one that spoke Japanese at them. I'm not sure whether this generated more curiosity in the cafe...or more fear.
Without work, residents look for things to keep them busy. One resident shared her newly-acquired talent of basket-weaving. It seems this is a very therapeutic hobby. Her bags and baskets were so well made that we strongly encouraged her to consider selling some. We told her that many people would love to buy a well-made eco-bag for shopping in a desire to support the Tohoku recovery. Of course, true to rural Japanese form, she was very self-deprecating and resisted our praise. We did manage to get her to pose for a photo, though.
I have the sense that God is doing great things in this town and will build His church here in the years to come. The mission potential of historically tough towns like Taro has seen a reboot with the tsunami. Closed networks have cracked open. New networks are being created. A new spiritual openness exists. Community is being reborn. And in that newly forming community, the church will find an opening for its message.
Jesus said, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35). Taro can't deny that it is being gently loved by God's people. In this Christlike love, the church will put down roots in the "swampy soil" of Japan. Toward this end, would you continue to keep Taro and the Miyako area in your prayer?